06 August 2007

Mystical Places: The Oracle at Delphi

The Oracle is both a place and a person. The Oracle was a woman who predicted the future at the site of Delphi. As one site puts it: "During the 8th c. B.C. Delphi became internationally known for the Oracular powers of Pythia--the priestess who sat on a tripod, inhaled ethylene gasses, and muttered incomprehensible words that foretold the future."

The ancient Greeks believed Delphi to be so important that it was the center of the world. As the NY Times put it: "For at least 12 centuries, the oracle at Delphi spoke on behalf of the gods, advising rulers, citizens and philosophers on everything from their sex lives to affairs of state. The oracle was always a woman, her divine utterances made in response to a petitioner's request. In a trance, at times in a frenzy, she would answer questions, give orders and make prophecies."

In the late 1990's a theory was put forth that the women would inhale naturally occuring ethylene gas from fissures in the rocks at the site of the temple, and thereby induce a trance state. Some scholars argue against the theory, first because there's no way to know exactly if or how much ethylene gas was present at the site 2,000 years ago and second, because the theory plays into modern ideas about the need for intoxication or some kind of substance use to induce the trancelike state. Maybe the priestesses were truly gifted. Maybe the site was indeed magical. Maybe they didn't need any kind of chemical assistance in order to fortell the future. Or maybe not. Truthfully, scholars dismissed the whole idea of them breathing vapors as nonsense until the ethylene gas theory was first put forth in the 1990's, so who's to say?

Regardless, there are many accounts in the literature of ages past recounting accurate and often gruesome fortellings by the Oracle at Delphi. We assume it was a series of priestesses who took on the role, but again, who's to say? Could there have been one being called Pythia, fortelling the future at Delphi for twelve centuries? The very idea boggles the mind and fires the imagination!

I find it interesting that the name Pythia is a reference to the legend of Apollo killing a dragon named Pytho. Of course, I always find dragons interesting. ;-)

Until next time,
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